Friday, July 28, 2017

Man Booker Prize Longlist 2017 has landed

Somehow it is ALREADY the time of year when the Man Booker Prize longlist is announced, which must mean winter is on the wane here in Oz (oh frabjous day!) I always use the Booker prizelist as a mental marker for the season starting its slow turn towards spring. Perhaps that's why it's always such a happy event for me?

This year's longlist is comprised of 13 titles:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)

That's a list with some heavy hitters on it - Barry, both the Smiths and Roy are all extremely well-regarded literary novellists. Indeed, Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been so long awaited after the triumph of her first novel, The God of Small Things (1997), that you'd have to wonder if it's going to take an early lead in Booker betting just out of readers' sheer excitement that it exists.

In terms of the stats, we've got a list with 6 women and 7 men; there are 4 Americans, 4 Brits, 2 Irish writers, 2 from Pakistan and one from India. Once again, the question of whether allowing American writers to compete for the Booker has weakened diversity in the prize overall will be raised, and for good reason; the lack of any representation from the Antipodes, Africa or most of Asia is notable and telling. Irish and subcontinental writers have traditionally done very well in the Booker, punching out of their weight numerically in terms of listings and wins, and continue to do so; but other voices and other traditions have struggled more since the Americans entered the fray, both to be listed and to be heard.

I have read 1.5 of these books so far - Zadie Smith's Swing Time, which I really enjoyed and would recommend, and I'm currently reading Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for August book club. I was aware that Barry and Ali Smith had new books out, and I have heard some buzz about Solar Bones. The rest of this list is complete greenfields for me - haven't heard of them at all until now.

Based on the book blurbs, there are a few themes that pop out, and they are not really novel ones for the Booker. Love, war, family, trauma, possibility - the stuff of Big Books about Big Stuff, in other words - are all well-represented.

4 3 2 1 seems to be doing a more structured version of what Kate Atkinson did with Life After Life - a sliding-doors type alternate lives narrative - and has the potential to be interesting. Swing Time is a really lovely friendship bildungsroman - as the Guardian review linked above notes, it's in the tradition of Elena Ferrante, and well worth the effort, but as it is about two young girls, it almost certainly won't win. Saunders' debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is set in the US Civil War and is about the death of Lincoln's young son (sort of).

Barry, for some reason I cannot comprehend, has written a historical narrative about a gay relationship set in the Indian wars on the US frontier (it's described as "an ultra-violent literary Western"). It's getting plaudits by the dozen, but I have to say, I think this one is almost certainly Not My Jam. Whitehead's book is about what it says on the label - slavery in the US and the underground railroad that helped slaves escape. Hamid's book intrigues me because I am almost sure it is based on / an expansion of a short story of his I read in the New Yorker a year ago - it's a story of love, refuge and escape. The short was absolutely beautiful, so I am definitely keen to read the novel.

Missing and endangered girls, another favourite trope of serious novellists, pop up in History of Wolves, Reservoir 13 and Home Fires. Ali Smith's Autumn, intended as the first of a linked set of four seasonal books, sounds absolutely intriguingly bizarre, and I almost always enjoy her work, so it's on my list. Solar Bones is (kind of) a ghost story. And finally, there's the not-yet-available debut from Fiona Mozley, Elmet, which is apparently about family, hidden violence, and landscape.

So that's the Booker longlist for 2017. It's reasonably varied, within limits (it's a very, very Anglophone list - only Roy and possibly Hamid really bring a different linguistic / stylistic approach to their narratives). There are some books that look amazing on it; it's a bit early to say if there are any real stinkers, but I am sure I will have views on that when I have read a few!

I'm going to try to read half the list before shortlist announcement on 13 September:

- Zadie Smith, Swing Time (Read)
- Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Reading)
- Ali Smith, Autumn
- Mohsin Hamad, Exit West
- Mike McCormack, Solar Bones
- Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1

We'll see how far that goes, and I might pick up any stragglers on the shortlist (although to be honest I am not going to read the Barry or the Saunders regardless).

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